Sunday, June 10, 2012

Let Us Start With Phytoplankton

I have problems imagining that the life process had a plan, complete in every detail, before the work of its creation started. But let’s give it a try. For that purpose let me borrow Plato’s Demiurge and imagine what he might have thought. The Demiurge did not create, of course; he merely produced—from preexisting stuff. And having life process in mind— imagined from the outset as ranging from high to low, and how each part would be maintained—the Demiurge, looking around, would have noted that while bodies of water held plenty of good things, a good place to start, and water itself a right handy material, in future, he thought, higher life would need oxygen for its internal combustion—but there was none of it in the atmosphere just then. Oxygen was there, to be sure, but bound up with hydrogen and carbon. So the Demiurge began—the plan already in his head. He said: “Let us start with minute creatures in the ocean. That’ll give us some practice. They’ll feed on carbon dioxide; their wastes will be oxygen; the gas will rise up and enrich the atmosphere; that will serve those other creatures still on my drawing board.” And the phytoplankton came about…

Now the Demiurge is not a communicative sort. This utterance was quite unusual. His ways are right mysterious, and hence we don’t know much about the phytoplankton. Are they, like, people? Or are they machines? Or something in between?

If they are machines, well, so be it. But if they are something in between, how do we picture them? Do they “have a life”? A big problem arises here. “Having a life,” for me, is not merely to have a succession of feeling states. I have them too, to be sure, but the crucial difference is that I am aware of them—while simultaneously being outside the process. If phytoplankton have feeling states yet they are unaware of having them, they lack all thinkable reality for me—except as things. I like to think that they do, too, have a life—but I manage that by projecting something into these creatures for which I have zero proof—except their own end-seeking motions. But those motion are ascribable to unconscious feelings states. Outer life, yes; inner life? No.

Therefore, of course, Descartes saw only automata. So why does that displease me? It shouldn’t. It’s logical. Well, I cannot find any reason whatsoever for an automaton unless it serves some purpose that lies outside of it. We make a mechanical frog that hops across the table. Why? Our own amusement. The Demiurge, if he had a purpose—beyond amusement—must have had the higher animals in mind, one supposes. But for them to be viable at all, a whole ecosystem had to be created. Indeed the whole planet had to be transformed.

But then, what about man? If humans were the end product, the Demiurge was up against it. He could make little machines in which chemical signals (call them feelings) cause different parts to respond to other chemical signals which cause pre-programmed appropriate behavior, much like what we see the mechanical frog doing as it responds to the spring inside—and hops. The Demiurge, to put it mildly, is severely challenged—being only able to use existing materials. How then can he make a human, the only creature we genuinely know to “have a life” as we have it. What is that something? And if it is in us, is it absent in the phytoplankton? So what is life?

I wish the Demiurge would speak. But he is so astonished by what he has made, he has fallen entirely silent. Or was he perhaps merely what his name actually originally meant in Greek, a “public worker,” thus someone out to do a job for a higher authority? He made the machines. But when he was out to lunch, the boss came in and breathed life into them? It’s a hypothesis.

No comments:

Post a Comment